I is a Strange Loop – Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould

A mathematical play, not a combination of words I ever expected to write and yet somehow it works. The authors are Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University Marcus du Sautoy and actress Victoria Gould who has a degree in physics and a masters degree in applicable mathematics. The play starts slowly with just one of the characters X on stage inside a large cube miming the drawing of two Platonic sequences, first the derivation of a regular hexagon using just a straight edge and a compass and secondly the proof of the irrationality of the square root of two using ever decreasing squares. Now this may not sound like riveting drama and frankly unless you know exactly what X is doing then it is very difficult to follow but X is about to have his whole world view changed by the arrival of the second character (or variable as they are referred to in the script) Y. Up until this point X has considered himself to be the only person and indeed the cube that he is in to be the only cube. Y however has travelled through millions of cubes and accumulated many things on her journey but is about to encounter her first ever other person, although she is surprised X is completely shocked by her appearance in his cube and through a couple of mathematical fallacies attempts to prove her non-existence.

OK this is probably sounding like a very niche production but believe me it is well worth sticking through the initial phases especially when we get to the second act which brilliantly turns the whole play on it’s head but more of that later. It also has to be the only play I have ever read that comes with a fourteen page guide to the maths in the play at the back of the book entitled A Mathematical Prompt Book. This is useful for the non-mathematician in explaining not only the maths but also some of the language used and functions very much like the glossary found at the back of some versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Would you get the joke about the Möbius script right at the end of the play if you don’t know what a Möbius strip is, probably not. But back to the first act. After Y demonstrates that there is a room, and in fact a series of rooms beyond the cube that X inhabits X then believes that the series must be infinite and tries (and fails) to prove this just as he also fails to physically prove other infinite series simply because, as Y points out, there are limits that prevent such physical proofs. All attempts to find an OUT, a place beyond the cube series also fail.

The second act is completely different and the humour of the piece grows, that’s not to say that the first act isn’t funny, the interactions between the purely mathematical X and the more practical Y are definitely amusing but the second act introduces reality is an very unexpected way. Right from the start of the second act Y believes the play is over and indeed no longer calls herself Y but instead uses her real name Victoria, X however is still very much in character. Victoria makes various attempts to disabuse X of his belief that the play continues including showing him that it is possible to leave the stage, go round the back and come back in from the opposite wing. She explains that the seemingly random noises heard during the play are the sounds of the underground trains near the theatre (there really was the sound of the underground where the play was first staged at The Barbican Pit Theatre in London) and she even produces a model of the set to show X that it is simply a stage. Nothing works and instead the play finishes almost back where it started. It really is very funny, both in the absurdity of the position that the characters find themselves in throughout the play and their changing relationships but also the increasing frustrating part of Victoria as the play is forcing itself back around her even as she believes she has finished.

The entire play can be seen here in a performance filmed at the Oxford Playhouse where the two parts are taken by the authors showing a surprisingly good acting ability from du Sautoy especially in what has to be described as experimental theatre. At one hour and fifteen minutes into the video the play is over and we go to a three quarters of an hour discussion about the play with Marcus du Sautoy, Victoria Gould interviewed by Simon McBurney, founder of Complicité, the theatre group responsible for the performance and which Gould is closely linked to. It’s definitely worth watching the play and it is considerably less intimidating knowing that the over two hour runtime of the video represents almost twice the length of the actual performance. Give it a go…

No Bed for Bacon – Caryl Brahms & S J Simon

Doris Abrahams and Simon Jacoblivitch Skidelsky, better known as Caryl Brahms and S J Simon respectively, collaborated on eleven comic novels and crime stories between 1937 and 1948 when S J Simon died suddenly at the age of just 44. No Bed for Bacon was their sixth book, first published in 1941, and is a comic retelling of Elizabethan England featuring William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth herself and numerous other famous characters from the period. Caryl Brahms was best known as a theatre, especially ballet, critic and S J Simon was a journalist but much more famous in the world of contract bridge where he was European champion and also the author of books on the subject.

Well this was a fun romp round Elizabethan London with lots of running gags including the one that gives the book its title which is Sir Francis Bacon’s desperate attempt to get hold of a bed that Queen Elizabeth had slept in during one of her many progressions around England which was seen as a major status symbol in ones home. In this he is constantly thwarted partly at the hands of the Master of the Revels who controls all such progressions but also bu Elizabeth herself who knowing of his desire for such an item of furniture ensures that it never goes to him. Other running jokes include William Skakespeare constantly trying out spellings for his name, which definitely has a basis in fact because all the known remaining signatures by Shakespeare are spelt differently. Sir Walter Raleigh keeps getting a new and ever more flashy cloak only for it to be ruined within a couple of hours, from the, probably apocryphal, tale of him using his cloak to keep the Queens feet dry when her carriage stopped by a puddle and in contrast Lord Burghley keeps being dressed in more and more shabby attire. Shakespeare also keeps trying to start a new play called Loves Labours Wonne as a companion piece to Loves Labours Lost which famously has not survived to the present day even assuming that he ever finished it in reality and the regular sections in terrible Elizabethan spelling also add to the joy of reading the book.

The opening character remains anonymous through the work yet appears regularly always doing a different job as he makes a rapid rise, and even faster fall through the ranks of the proletariat from horse holder outside a theatre, to watchman, soldier, manservant, prisoner and back to watchman amongst many other jobs too numerous to list. He invariably starts any chapter actually set in London and you get used to seeing what he has managed to become this time. The other main fictional character, most of the people in the book really existed, is the young Lady Viola who disguises herself as a boy in order to join Shakespeare’s company as an actor as females were not allowed on the stage at the time and ultimately falls in love with him. If this sounds familiar than you have probably seen the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love where Gwyneth Paltrow plays Lady Viola who disguises herself as a man in order to join Shakespeare’s company as an actor as females were not allowed on the stage at the time and ultimately falls in love with him. Just a reminder that the book was written in 1941 and Tom Stoppard, who co-wrote the film is known to have had a copy of the book but claims to have not been influenced by it despite even using the same character name and no credits to Brahms or Simon are given in the film.

The book does play fast and loose with historical accuracy (as does the film which nicked the plot) but one of the most poignant sections and indeed the longest chapter of the novel takes place on a boat on the Thames with Queen Elizabeth progressing down the river in the company of her famous military and naval commanders whilst reliving the routing of the Spanish Armada. From what I remember of my Tudor history lessons this does appear to be mainly factually correct although it does contain Sir Francis Drake completing his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before heading out to meet the enemy which almost certainly didn’t happen. There are various sidelong comments regarding Drake being lucky with the wind which however was certainly correct.

Forsooth, tis a merrie romp Master Will and I definitely recommend the novel assuming you can lay your hands on a copy as it appears to have been out of print for a couple of decades but there are plenty of copies available on abebooks.

My copy is the first Penguin Books edition published in December 1948 five months after the death of S J Simon, Carly Brahms greatly outlived him and died just 3 days short of her 81st birthday in 1982.

Campaigns & Companions – Andi Ewington and Rhianna Pratchett

OK, this is an extremely short book, being more a series of jokes about why you should never let your pets take part in Role Playing Games such as Dungeons and Dragons, it is however also extremely funny and beautifully illustrated by Calum Alexander Watt. I purchased the signed edition which comes with four art cards each signed by one of the two authors, the illustrator and the editor and which have on the back a character profile in the style of RPG’s of the illustrated pets including special skills and dice rolling advantages and disadvantages. It has arrived in the post today and has immediately leapfrogged over all the other books in my to be read pile.

As it says on the back cover “What if your pets could play D&D? And what if they were… kind of Jerks?”

Anyone who has ever owned a cat will be all too familiar with that particular feline trait. There are forty five double page spreads like this with a scenario from a game on the left hand side and an illustration which mainly stays on the right but occasionally strays over to mix with the text, There is also a centre page double spread picture of the animals playing whilst seated at a table just as if they are human. One I particularly liked, because a friends dog is quite capable of doing this, is a dog with his staff in his mouth not able to understand why he can’t get through an archway. I’ve watched her dog try to get through a door to greet me whilst holding a branch in his mouth that is clearly too large to go through and getting more and more puzzled as to why he can’t get in.

Amazingly all the jokes work, there is a preponderance of cat and dog tales but that simply reflects the spread of pets, at least in the UK but there are also gerbils, a hamster, rats, a chameleon, a rabbit, a snake and even a spider amongst various others, but everything rings true to the habits of the animals.

As I said at the beginning of this review the four art cards, each signed by one of the people involved in the project, have a different format to the rest of the book and take four of the featured characters from the book and add more details on the back of the card that would be relevant if they were taking part in a Role Playing Game. The four cards are as follows:

I’ll just show the top half of the card for Rexar the Fighter and Poppy which was signed by Rhianna Pratchett, who by the way in her dedication in the book says “To Pinky and Perky. My wonderful girls. Thank you for all the bleps, plurps and snuggles”, I just hope they were guinea pigs and that is why she chose to sign this one. The other three contributors also dedicated the book to their pets

This shows the sort of extra detail, and jokes, that are only available to owners of the signed edition and as this cost the same price I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t get this variant at least while stocks last, it is only available from Forbidden Planet whilst the standard edition is widely distributed. The book is published by Rebellion who I hadn’t heard of before but I suspect it will be worth checking out their catalogue. As Ian Livingstone (co-founder of Games Workshop and the Fighting Fantasy series of books) says in his blurb for the book

Dangerously funny – I had to make a saving throw vs side-splitting. Pet adventurers – you have been warned.

The Clicking of Cuthbert – PG Wodehouse

By way of contrast to the five French works I read throughout August I have chosen the most quintessentially English of writers for the first book of this month P G Wodehouse. I should at this point make it clear that I am not a golf fan so this is a slightly odd choice of book to have on my shelves, but I am definitely a Wodehouse fan and he didn’t let me down. The ten stories collected into this book are definitely all set on the golf course but the gentle humour of Wodehouse pervades the tales not so much about golf but about relationships and especially young love. Men battle it out with clubs and balls to win the hand of the one they love, in two of the stories without the lady herself being aware she was the object of such competition. Always playing the ball where it lies or being regarded as a blackguard, see the cover illustration where Cuthbert Banks plays from the dining table of a house adjacent to the links. It should be noted that although the book is called The Clicking of Cuthbert he only appears in the first story.

Most of the stories are related in the clubhouse by The Oldest Member usually as some younger chap comes to him for advice, not necessarily on golfing matters. He will then relate a tale of some past member with a useful message for the struggling supplicant, in the case of Cuthbert Banks it was how golf finally won him the hand of the lovely Adeline Smethurst a girl who until a fateful evening at a literary soiree thought that only a renowned novelist or poet would be a suitable match. The Oldest Member tells the story to encourage a young man not to give up golf and prove that there is a use for golf.

The Folio Society edition is beautifully illustrated by Paul Cox with 41 inset black and white drawings along with a colour cover, frontispiece and end papers which illustrate the Woodhaven Golf Club where most of the stories are set, see final picture in this blog. Below is the occasion where Celia Tennant had hit her fiancee with her niblick in an attempt to stop his endless chattering on the course from the fifth story in the book, The Salvation of George Mackintosh.

One of the stories concerns the need to always retain a clear head whilst playing golf as illustrated in this quote from Ordeal by Golf.

How few men, says the Oldest Member, possess the proper golfing temperament? How few indeed, judging by the sights I see here on Saturday afternoons possess any qualification at all for golf, except a pair of baggy knickerbockers and enough money to enable them to pay for the drinks st the end of the round. The ideal golfer never loses his temper. When I played I never lost my temper. Sometimes, it is true, I may, after missing a shot, have broken my club across my knees, but I did it in a clam and judicial spirit, because the club was obviously no good and I was going to get another one anyway.

As the stories in this book date from 1919 to 1922, it was first published in book form in 1922, the club names are the traditional ones from the then almost exclusively Scottish makers. Clubs weren’t numbered until the Americans got involved in manufacturing in the 1930’s it therefore helps to know that a Brassie is a 3 wood, a Mashie a five iron, a Niblick is a nine iron and by inference a Mashie-niblick is a 7 iron. Other clubs referred to in the book are a Spoon (5 wood), a Rut niblick (wedge) and a Cleek (either a 1 or 2 iron). Bring back the old names, they give a definite beauty to the game.

In the end paper illustration Paul Cox has clearly studied the stories in the book as the holes are recognisable from the descriptions given with the various hazards such as the lake on hole 2 clearly visible.

He Died with a Felafel in His Hand – John Birmingham

Firstly a warning, the book contains strong language and lots of stories of excessive drug and alcohol use and things that happen when that happens, but don’t let that put you off unless you really don’t think that it is suitable for you. That said this book is so incredibly funny and yet so believable that when Birmingham says that it all really happened to him you have to believe him, and it certainly could be true that he had eighty nine of the craziest people house share with him over the years. I know I wouldn’t last five minutes with any of them. Birmingham is an Australian and all the places he lived are in various Australian cities, starting with Brisbane but including Sydney, Melbourne and others over thirteen different properties. Sometimes he moved because he just wanted to, more often it was to get away from his housemates and at least once to avoid being killed by one of them. Because the book isn’t told sequentially and there is no timescale it’s difficult to tell over how long a period it all takes place but some properties he left really quickly whilst in others he was the last man standing.

Interspersed amongst the text are grey shaded passages written by other people who have also experienced Australian house sharing hell. These are a little confusing at first as they appear right in the middle of stories that Birmingham is telling about his own particular nightmare cohabitants. Initially I tried to read them as interludes but it soon became clear that it was easier to get to the end of whatever horror story we were in at the time and then go back and read the one or two extra bits I had skipped, There are also a few extras that are several pages long and in a different typeface to resemble typewritten sections which are too long to be the greyed inserts but clearly Birmingham thought were so funny they had to be included somehow, all these occur at the end of chapters with a full page greyed out intro.

Milo won the house competition for not changing out of his jeans. PJ and I dropped out at four and five weeks respectively, but Milo, who liked the feel of rotting denim – “It’s like a second skin!” – was pronounced the champion at ten weeks and told to have a bath or leave. It was an all-male house.

There are various comparisons of all-male and mixed sex house shares, being male Birmingham obviously has limited experiences of all female occupation, and the general consensus is that for sheer disgustingness nothing beats the all-male property especially if the occupancy level is well above that intended. Set against that for true angst you need to have at least one woman in there (males tend to descend into their own chilled out pit of squalor) and if two, or more, of the housemates are in a sexual relationship it’s probably time to get out of there fast before the whole thing implodes. The other thing that will definitely kill an otherwise happy house is the introduction of a junkie, not just for the drug taking but also for the petty thefts to feed the habit and the tendency to attract the attention of the police with consequences for all. The title of the book comes from the opening line and ‘He’ was named Jeffrey. Jeffrey had joined an otherwise happy house only recently but it turned out he was a junkie, he had died whilst watching TV after a night out where he had had probably one too many of his drug of choice that evening and had passed out and died whilst eating the said felafel, the yogurt dressing had run down over the puncture marks in his arm. It was apparently Birmingham’s first dead housemate, he doesn’t however say if it was his last.

Whilst looking this book up to make sure it was still in print, it is, I found that it had subsequently been made into a long running play, a film in 2001 and a graphic novel in 2004 so it’s popularity, especially in its native Australia, seems assured. John Birmingham is now an established writer of both fiction and non-fiction, this was his first book although he had written articles and stories for a few magazines before this.

Humble Pi – Matt Parker

Subtitled ‘A comedy of Maths Errors’ this book looks at mistakes not only with mathematics but also some dodgy computer programming and some problems that fall in between like the fact that an employee kept disappearing from the company database and it turns out that his name was Steve Null. I used to be a programmer and more importantly for this example a Database Analyst so immediately saw the problem here, empty fields which should be populated are counted as Null in a database so you would search for Null entries and delete the records as they are clearly not filled in correctly and could cause processing errors later down the line, this person was actually called Null so kept being deleted.

Matt Parker is the Public Engagement Mathematics Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, amongst many other things, and has made a career out of explaining mathematics to the general public both on youtube and in highly successful theatre based tours. He started out as a maths teacher in his native Australia but has lived in England for many years and built his online presence here. The book is not only informative regarding maths errors and possible pitfalls but includes several mathematical jokes in its layout such as starting at page 314 and counting down which is clearly not normal behaviour for a book. The choice of 314 is deliberate as Matt is well known for his annual calculations of pi in different ways on pi day (American format dates for the 14th of March gives 3.14) including one ideal for this which uses the actual book I’m reviewing to calculate pi.

Other ways he plays with the normal structure of a book include having a chapter 9.49 between chapters 9 and 10, which appropriately covers problems with rounding errors, and the index which is surprisingly accurate as not only do you get the page with the entry on but as it is to five decimal places you get the location of the word you searched for.

Some of the errors I had come across before but surprisingly not many, this is a really well researched piece of work. One I hadn’t heard of in the past is now rapidly becoming my favourite mistake because it was so close to being right and then fell over at the final hurdle. There was a bridge being built between Switzerland and Germany and to save time it was decided to start from both sides and meet in the middle. Clearly this is a good idea but you do need to actually line up perfectly so the maths is even more vital than normal for an engineering project. There is a problem with matching heights and that is that they are calculated ‘above sea level’ now that wouldn’t be an issue if sea level was constant (it isn’t, the curvature of the Earth amongst other factors sees to that) bit also Switzerland does not have a coast but via a fairly convoluted route uses the Mediterranean Sea as its base point. Germany does have a coast but a long way from Switzerland on the North Sea. The engineers thought of this however and correctly calculated the difference as 27cm, which is pretty impressive (a) to think of it and (b) to get it right but then added the 27cm to the wrong side so the bridge missed its joint by 54cm.

If this post intrigues you Matt has done a couple of lectures based around the book and this is the link to the one he gave at The Royal Institution in London last year. In it he goes through several examples in the book including a section near the end where his wife, space scientist Lucy Green, brings into the lecture hall what remains of a satellite blown to pieces and dumped in a swamp after a simple maths error. You can’t easily get a more dramatic, or indeed more expensive example of maths gone wrong than that. I bought the book from Matt on his website so it is signed by him and yes I have posted this a day late from my usual Tuesday and between 7pm and 8pm rather than 7am and 8am to show that getting a number wrong is all too common and Matt also left in three errors for exactly that reason.

Mark Steel’s in Town – Mark Steel

Mark Steel is a stand up comedian that started a BBC Radio 4 radio show called Mark Steel’s in Town back in March 2009 where he travels to towns in the UK and builds a routine about the place and people for a one off show played in that town. He has deviated slightly over the years and two shows have come from outside the UK, namely Gibraltar and most recently Malta (broadcast February 2019) both of which he found more British than a lot of the places he had been to before. This book, published by Fourth Estate in 2011, is adapted from his travels in the first two series along with other towns and cities that he did as part of his stand up tours which weren’t recorded for the BBC shows. The idea is to gently poke fun at the place he is in and during the radio show he also includes interviews with locals which highlight the oddities and history of the location.

The idea for the show grew out of a frustration that all towns are starting to look the same, you know that such and such a shop will be on that corner there, next to a legion of other similar shops, there is no real way to tell if you are in Taunton or Norwich when you are in the main shopping area as the same retailers are in roughly the same place no matter where you are. What Mark does is celebrate what makes a place different from anywhere else and the fact that he does it in such a funny way has made his series last over a decade. Presumably he would be working on series ten if it wasn’t for the coronavirus that makes such a project impossible.

In this book Mark bounces around Britain from Penzance in the far south west with its outdoor swimming pool which has a cannon built into one side of it; to Kirkwall on Orkney which is just about as far north as you can go and still be in the UK where he encounters a pram shop which is also a fully stocked off licence, presumably on the basis that drinking too much of some of the stock may lead you to needing the other half of the shop nine months later. In between he visits the concrete hippo of Walsall, the rabbits that must not be mentioned of Portland and the bonfire societies of Lewes amongst lots of others. He isn’t put off dealing with harder issues either such as ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland when he went to Andersontown or the chronic unemployment and deprivation in Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. You really can learn a lot about the UK, its geography and history from these short essays.

All in all it is a delightfully eccentric tour of the UK only marred by his use of the ‘f’ word on several occasions which makes it unsuitable for younger readers, but frankly they aren’t the audience he is aiming at. It is a pity though as the language is unnecessary because Steel has a wonderful turn of phrase and is genuinely funny and he is much more careful with his broadcast versions. All fifty four episodes of the Radio 4 show are currently available on BBC Sounds and are well worth a listen.

The History of England – Jane Austen

Although entitled The History of England this actually makes up quite a small proportion of this book which includes two pieces from Juvenilia, the other being Lesley Castle, both works were written when Austen was sixteen and show a remarkable talent even at such a young age. Jane Austen is not known for her comedic writing but both of these short works are very funny in completely different ways. This book was published as part of a set to mark fifty years of Penguin Classics in 1995.

The History of England

Subtitled “From the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st, by a Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Historian” this certainly lives up to the initial billing. Jane’s prejudices are specifically pro Yorkist and later pro Stuart and hence very anti Lancastrian and Tudor. This means that Henry VI, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I come out of this rather badly whilst Richard III unusually for the time gets a rather reasonable write up solely due to him being from the House of York. It is best to give some idea of the style of Jane’s writing by quoting a section and I have chosen the opening paragraph on Henry VIII.

It would be an affront to my Readers were I to suppose that they were not as well acquainted with the particulars of this King’s reign as I am myself. It will therefore be saving them the task of reading again what they have read before, & myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch of the principal Events which marked his reign.

The complete disinterest in dates reminds me of the much later work by R J Yeatman and W C Sellar 1066 and all that, and I can’t help but wonder if they had come across the young Jane Austen’s effort before they wrote their larger but also funny summary of English history. The pictures used on the cover of this slim volume are the ones drawn by Jane’s sister Cassandra for the original manuscript of The History of England.

Lesley Castle

This much longer work is the start of an unfinished novel written in the form of letters between five ladies. There are ten letters and a short enclosed note in all in what was completed and I can only wish that she had written more as she has assembled such a disparate cast of characters that the interaction between them has so many possibilities. That there is also a wonderful bitchiness about the letters just adds to the amusement, I’d love to see it performed with each character reading out the letter as they wrote it with maybe the recipient reacting as though just reading it.

In such a short work we have Charlotte Lutterell being far more concerned with the potential waste of food that has been prepared for the wedding banquet of her sister. That the fact that the match is off because her sister’s fiancee has fallen off his horse and broken his neck is seen by her as a minor inconvenience, she also cannot understand why her concern over how they will eat all the food already prepared is not shared by her sister and the suggestion that at least some of it could be used for the funeral, whilst a practical suggestion, is not seen favourably by her. Her correspondence with Margaret Lesley, one of the two unmarried sisters living in the titular Lesley Castle also covers the surprise wedding of their widowed father and the subsequent difficult relationship between the girls and their new stepmother.

Margaret is apparently also incapable of regarding anybody else’s feelings as the extract below from the final letter between her and Charlotte when Margaret finally comes down to London from Lesley Castle which is up in Scotland.

In short, my Dear Charlotte, it is my sensibility for the sufferings of so many amiable Young Men, my Dislike of the extreme Admiration I meet with, and my Aversion to being so celebrated both in Public, in Private, in Papers, & in Printshops, that are the reasons why I cannot more fully enjoy the Amusements, so various and pleasing, of London. How often have I wished that I possessed as little personal Beauty as you do; that my figure were as inelegant; my face as unlovely; and my Appearance as unpleasing as yours! But ah! what little chance is there of so desirable an Event;

If asked to sum up Jane Austen’s well known novels in one word ‘humorous’ would be very low down on the list of possibilities, but these short works show that, at least as a teenager, she was possessed of a sharp and dark wit.

A Valley in Italy – Lisa St Aubin de Teran

20200714 A Valley in Italyr

Subtitled ‘Confessions of a House Addict’ the book more than lives up to that description. St Aubin de Teran is a novelist and I have several of her books although I am mainly drawn to her autobiographical work documenting her increasingly complicated life as she bounces from country to country. She was born in London, but when she had just turned sixteen married a much older Venezuelan sugar plantation owner and bank robber, hence her surname. Eventually she moved to that country at the age of seventeen and ran his estate over the next seven years. It was here that she had her daughter Iseult, known throughout this book as ‘the child Isuelt’ or more simply ‘the child’ despite there also being a younger brother (by her second husband) who is normally just referred to as Allie. By 1989 when this book is set Iseult was now fifteen and just as confident and precocious as her mother had been at the same age, having already been employed as a model in Paris. As for Lisa she was married to her third husband, the artist Robbie Duff Scott and they were looking for a new home in Italy, preferably large and rambling, however bearing in mind the state of their finances it also had to be pretty dilapidated.

I saw the house I had been looking for all my life. It was standing like a jilted beauty still dressed in its ancient best. The abandoned facade was groaning under tons of sculpted terracotta. There was row upon row of long graceful windows reaching down to white marble sills, there were dozens of arches, a loggia, a roof, a balcony and a cascade of wisteria.

I gleaned these impressions through my first glances. Then, though I subsequently climbed through one of the missing windows and roamed around for nearly an hour, I was so entranced that I saw little else that I could remember with any clarity. There was a white marble staircase stretching up with cantilevered vertigo through four floors with neither balustrade nor banister against the sheer drop. There was a white marble fireplace some ten feet high in a blackened kitchen. There were two tractors, a combine harvester and a transport van all rusting in the downstairs hall.

And so the description goes on, almost all the doors were missing as well as the windows, a large part of the roof and indeed most of an exterior wall. They agreed to buy it straight away and only when then had driven away realised that they didn’t actually know where it was as the agent had taken them there as a second choice so they had no documents to tell them anything about it.

It was agreed that Lisa and the child would go to the house to supervise getting the restoration started, Robbie had to go back to Scotland to look after his terminally ill father and Allie would finish that years schooling from their apartment in Venice in the care of ‘the beauties’ two statuesque young Irish women who were employed as nannies. On arrival at the ruined building where they were going to camp as none of the rooms were actually habitable Lisa discovered that despite her careful packing of kitchen utensils, tools, coats, torches and camping equipment the child had simply replaced everything before they left with items a teenage girl deemed essential, that is lots of her impractical clothes, shoes and gallons of make-up and face-packs. As you can imagine their discovery at the house the next morning by the builder and his team they were employing to restore the villa was a real surprise to the men and it took some time to convince them that they really were the new owners. This set the tone of eccentricity the family gained in the village which was only increased by the eventual arrival of Allie and the beauties but still no man of the household which was unheard of in central Italy.

The book is extremely funny, not only in it’s description of the chaotic rebuilding of the villa over the following year but also in the way they all eventually become accepted in the village and the tales of how they got to know their neighbours. The children led the way into the hearts of the people, Iseult had a trail of admirers almost from first arriving and Allie was soon adored by the families. The beauties (we never do learn their names) also had a string of admirers not only from their looks and height (both over 6 feet tall) but also from the fact that only one of the men in the entire village could beat them at arm wrestling! Eventually Robbie arrived and they became a respectable family unit at last and what could have been just another rebuild a ruin book morphs into a charming story about life in an Umbrian village. I heartily recommend it as a great introduction to the works of Lisa St Aubin de Teran and if you do read and enjoy it I suggest Off the Rails which was written earlier as the next one to try. I will at some point reread The Hacienda which is the story of her seven traumatic years in Venezuela, maybe a project for a years time as a follow up to this blog.

How to Lie with Statistics – Darrell Huff

20200623 How to Lie with Statistics

I bought this book many years ago when I was employed by the accounts department of a large UK firm to analyse the figures and produce reports for the board of directors on performance of all aspects of the business not just financial. Now you may think that purchasing a book entitled How to Lie with Statistics would suggest that these board reports may not have been entirely accurate; but in fact I got it for the same reason as it was written because if you know how things can be done badly then you can avoid making the same ‘mistakes’. Unless of course you are trying to show something, or more likely hide something, in the numbers, in which case the book becomes even more useful as a source of helpful hints. Rereading it at a time when we are bombarded with statistics and graphs (oh how a lover of selective data loves graphs) relating to the global pandemic of Covid-19 adds a useful dose of cynicism which we could all do with and the cartoons by Mel Calman are as pointed as they so often are.

Averages and relationships and trends and graphs are not always what they seem. There may be more in them than meets the eye and there may be a good deal less.

The book is full of examples of misleading statistics either real ones or created data to illustrate a point, for example just what is an average? Now the lay person reading that the average of something is say five will assume that tells you something, but which definition of average is being used? There are after all three main types all of which can give wildly different results depending on what you want to prove. The mean is what most people assume is an average that is add up all the numbers and then divide by how many numbers are in the sample. But then there is the median which is simply the middle number if you write out the data in numeric order, now this is useful for getting rid of weird data in the sample, the series 1, 3, 3, 5, 7, 9, 147 has a median of 5 which is ‘probably’ more useful than the mean of that data set which would push the ‘average’ much higher than all but one of the numbers in the set but it can also be misleading if that answer of 147 turns out to be important and you have simply ignored it. The only other average most people will come across is the mode, now that is simply the number that occurs most often so in the previous example that would be 3. So is the average 3, 5 or 25? Well it depends what you want to prove all of them are legitimate averages. In the book Huff uses a similar example where the data is household income, if my sample is also monthly income in thousands of pounds then all we have proved is that this particular group probably includes a professional footballer on £147,000 a month. Saying that the average is £25,000 a month is meaningless unless you want to imply that this is a particularly wealthy neighbourhood to property investors that haven’t been there but under one definition it is the average income, so should they build a Waitrose or an Aldi supermarket?

Each chapter features different ways of presenting data starting with samples with built in bias. A postal survey asking if people like filling in postal surveys may well show that 95% do, but unless you also know that they sent out 100,000 surveys and only got 250 back you don’t see the 99.75 percent of people polled that so dislike filling in postal surveys they simply threw it away. A famous real example of this mentioned in the book is The Kinsey Report on the sex lives of Americans in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. This report claimed to be revolutionary and is still cited but how many people back then were going to be willing to take part in the survey? By the nature of the responding sample we have another self selecting group biased towards people who are more open about their sex lives and preferences and may also on that basis be more experimental therefore skewing the results.

But to really lie with statistics you need a graph which is why politicians and marketing departments love them so much, one of the examples in the book is reproduced below and shows a oft repeated trick to make figures look more impressive, truncating the vertical axis, both graphs show the same data but have a different title to reflect what the story is.

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Another popular trick with graphs is to start or stop the range displayed to avoid including inconvenient data, if a graph based on monthly figures doesn’t start in January or maybe starts in 2007 (which seems an odd year to choose unless mapping something that did actually commence then) always ask the question what were the figures that preceded those displayed, likewise if it appears to stop at a random point then that is probably where the data stopped matching whatever the person drawing the graph wanted to prove.

Percentages are also to be looked at carefully, percentage of what precisely is always a good question. If something is £10 now and £15 next year it is 50% more expensive but the reverse isn’t the case, something £15 and £10 next year is 33% cheaper however it’s amazing how often you see the figure of 50% being used, an example is of the president of a flower growers association in the US who claimed flowers are 100% cheaper than they were last year, what he meant was that the price last year was 100% higher than now, if they were really 100% cheaper they would have to give them away. There are lots more examples in the book and you don’t need any mathematical knowledge to understand any of them, Huff is really good at explaining just why you should be always looking twice at any statistic and the more simplistic the way it is presented then the more cynical you should be.

Darrell Huff wrote this classic back in 1954 and it was then published by Victor Gollancz and first editions now sell for many hundreds of pounds. This is the 1973 first Pelican Books edition and it was Pelican that commissioned Calman’s drawings and is much more reasonably priced. It doesn’t appear to still be in print but copies are easy to find on the secondhand market. Now more than ever this book is needed.

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